Alaska electric utilities are proposing new rates for fast charging stations for electric cars

EV charging stations outside a Fred Meyer in the snow. A raven perches on a stop sign in the background.
Fred Meyer’s gas station in Juneau hosts two kinds of charging stations for electric vehicles, pictured here on Feb. 3, 2022. The retailer lets the public use them for free even though the fast chargers can lead to hefty bills under Alaska Electric Light and Power Company’s current rate schedule. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

In the Alaska community with one of the highest electric vehicle ownership rates in the country, there are four publicly available fast charging stations.

Because of Juneau’s limited road system, there may not be much demand for them compared to slower, more common alternatives.

That’s not stopping Alaska Electric Light and Power Company and other utilities around the state from working on updating how they bill customers that run fast charging station, and on other changes that will make it easier to operate any type of EV charging station.

Right now, Fred Meyer in Juneau is AELP’s only customer that would be billed differently if new rates take effect. The retailer runs a gas station with a bank of electric vehicle chargers, which it lets the public use for free. Two of them are fast charging stations.

Unlike the other two fast chargers in town — there’s one at the Downtown Transportation Center parking garage and one near the Alaskan Brewing Company’s tasting room — Fred Meyer’s are on a dedicated meter of their own, so AELP knows exactly how often they’re used. When they’re working properly, the utility said it averages out to about an hour and five minutes a day. This means you’d have to be pretty patient or pretty lucky to catch someone plugging there.

Someone like Xiao-Yue Han.

“I’m a resident of Portland, Oregon, and I went up to Juneau to visit a friend for a wedding and check out some whales,” Han said.

He got familiar with all four fast chargers in town this past summer because he rented a Tesla Model S and didn’t have a place to charge it where he was staying.

“Because we rented the Model S, we had to return it with, like, a reasonable amount of fill. And it was difficult,” he said.

His Turo rental car host ended up giving him a break on the recharge. But it’s not unusual for EV owners to be in Han’s situation. EV owners who can’t charge at home are sometimes called “garage orphans.”

AELP and other utilities are proposing two significant changes for EV charging. First, they clarify that EV station operators are OK to resell electricity. 

Alaska’s rules about this were unclear until state regulators made an exception in October. There were workarounds. For example, pricing according to time connected. The city also runs a few charging stations in paid, public parking garages. But otherwise, all of the public chargers in Juneau are free to their users.

Of course, their operators do get billed, and it’s up to them if they want to pass that cost on to their users or try to turn a profit.

Fred Meyer did not respond to requests for comment about whether it plans to start charging to charge up. But Han, who also drives a Tesla in Portland, said when businesses offer free charging, it’s an attraction. Now he frequents a spot about an hour’s drive outside the city where he can charge for free.

“You know, we discovered this winery because it was on the Tesla Supercharging network. And so it was a little bit like a business development thing for the winery,” Han said. “For effectively, like, $2 worth of electricity, I spend two hours there. I get great charge. … And you know, spend anywhere from $100 to $300 worth of, you know, wine and food and things like that.”

The other change utilities want to make is simplifying the billing for customers with fast charging stations. This would only apply to fast chargers that are on their own dedicated meters.

“They deliver power at a very high rate, but only for a very short period,” said Alec Mesdag, vice president and director of energy services and metering with the utility.

Fast charging is great for EV drivers but hard for an electric utility to build and operate a grid around. That’s because utilities have to build the infrastructure to accommodate the highest loads at any given moment, even though the system will run far below capacity most of the time.

From a utility’s perspective, it’s much more efficient for EV drivers to recharge slowly over several hours than in the irregular, 20-minute spurts that some fast chargers make possible.

Across Alaska, big commercial customers and smaller customers with especially spiky electricity demands get charged differently than typical residential customers. They pay for the total amount of electricity they use each month, plus an extra fee called a demand charge. It’s based on the single biggest spike of electricity use each month. AELP’s meters capture this by recording the highest throughput in any 15-minute period over a month.

Now, remember how AELP tracks how often Fred Meyer’s fast chargers are in use? That’s key to understanding a pricing problem utilities and regulators want to sort out.

EV fast chargers are not steadily used. Last year, Railbelt utilities said they are typically idle 95-99% of the time.

When too few people plug in, that can lead to some bonkers bills under current rate structures. For example, Chugach Electric Association mathed out some hypothetical scenarios with different kinds of fast chargers. In its examples, it could cost about $45 to fully charge a Chevy Bolt — or it could cost $660.

It’s not as extreme, but versions of that play out with AELP’s rate schedule, too.

Utilities and policymakers do want to make it easier for more people to switch to electric cars.

“Overall, we recognize that electric vehicles are a good thing,” Mesdag said. “They have benefits that they provide to the system overall. But we still have this issue of not wanting to inequitably recover costs from different users.”

It’s a balancing act. As things are, it’s really unappealing to set up fast chargers. If utilities lower rates for EV stations and overcorrect, then everyone could be paying for the people who use the charging stations.

State regulators decided that utilities should have new, fixed rates for EV fast charging stations and drop the fee that makes high idle time so problematic.

It’s up to each utility to propose their own rates, and it’s up to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to decide if they’re fair. State lawyers with the Regulatory Affairs and Public Advocacy office can also weigh in on behalf of ratepayers.

AELP’s proposed rates vary seasonally. They’re higher in the winter when overall electricity demand is higher. They also vary by the type of customer. On the low end, it would cost about $8 to charge up a Chevy Bolt in the summer. On the high end, say for Fred Meyer or a for-profit charging network that tries to set up shop, it’d be about $15 in the winter.

Mesdag said AELP’s proposed rates are middle-of-the-road, compared to what other utilities are proposing.

AELP and other utilities’ new rates could take effect in March if the commission approves them.

You can see different electric utilities’ EV fast charging rate schedule proposals in the library section of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska’s website. The commission is taking public comment on most of them through February.

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Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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